Reading The 1648 Ordinance From Parliament Exhibiting Stage Theatre

Submitted By wolfeflow
Words: 4892
Pages: 20

Reading the 1648 ordinance from Parliament suppressing stage theatre seems to confirm what we are taught and thus what is, for the large part, common knowledge: Puritan hostility towards the theatre reflected itself in law, shutting down theatre in England for eighteen years. Without delving further into context, deducing any other motive becomes difficult. Acts of stage plays were “condemned by ancient heathens, and much less to be tolerated amongst Professors of the Christian Religion”. The Long Parliament’s Act declared triumphantly and decidedly that stage plays and actors were no more. Illegal, the instruments to conduct theatre should be dismantled and the actors arrested should they attempt their craft. The Act was straightforward in its wording, with very little room for even the best lawyers to work through. Puritan fervor saw the end of theatre in England for eighteen years. There are several logical leaps and contextual oversights that lead to this conclusion. In reality – as always – the truth is more complex. First, the time period of the theatre closure is more commonly defined as from 1642 until 1660. This act of 1648 comes six years after the ordinance ordering the initial closure. In that six-year span lies political and theatrical history critical to understanding the attitude of the latter ordinance. Second, a Puritan fervor was not so dominant in London as some might assume. A significant portion of the population – gentry and commoner – lived non-radical lifestyles. The 1648 ordinance is one of the first official documents containing strongly religious rhetoric. Third, theatre did not disappear for nearly two decades. That we learn as much in school is the result of historians and literary critics making vitally wrong assumptions that turned an intricate tangle of culture and society into an eighteen-year gap. The consensus among historians may have changed over time towards a more complex view, but the history books of the public have not. Fourth and finally, the reasoning behind the ban of the theatre is more than and perhaps excludes the church. As stated above, the 1648 document rippled with religious fire – the 1642 counterpart did not. The question then becomes what happened in the intermittent years? Most Historians of the period argue this point by omission. Like Gurr’s classic on Shakespeare, many historians end their surveys and analyses in 1642. Even Cook and Martin, fundamental sources of opinion in my research, do not venture past the first closure. Finding sources that either continued after 1642 or began before the 1660 Restoration became a fair struggle during my studies. Not surprisingly, teachers and textbooks follow this trend, glazing over the period. As I stated above and will restate several times hereafter, this glazing over is what I want our contemporaries to reconsider. In this paper I will add my opinion to the over-stuffed debate that is the English Civil War. The closure of the theatres from 1642-1660 interests me largely due to the re-opened debate over its importance and, more importantly, the motives beneath it. I do not pretend enough knowledge to valuate an event’s importance in the grand scheme, but breaking down and analyzing the same event falls well within my abilities. My goal is to show that the theatre bans of 1642 and 1648, while somewhat religious in dialogue, deal with many other influences that might trump religion in strength. My approach, and argument, is threefold. First, the 1642 ban was political and not without precedent. There was little or no religious background to the decision to close the theatres. Second, the ordinance was not intended to be permanent. Several instances, societal standards and documents suggest the assumption that the ban would be temporary. Third, even the 1648 Act with its emphasis on Puritan ideals might not be so clear-cut as many would assume. A power shift in London alone justifies my